12 Ancestors in 12 Months: Foundations

As I stated at the start of 2022, my New Year’s resolution is to blog more about our families’ history. With that intent in mind, I accepted genealogist Amy Johnson Crow’s “lighter” writing challenge, not 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks but the more achievable 12 Ancestors in 12 Months.

At first, January’s writing prompt, Foundations, had me stumped. Naturally, what first came to mind was construction. Did we have ancestors who erected buildings? Sadly, other than family farmers who raised barns; one uncle who poured concrete; another uncle, a great-uncle, and a grandfather who painted houses; and a father who installed plumbing and flipped houses as some of his many jobs/pastimes, I could not determine anyone in the past who had labored in construction.

Think, think, think… Suddenly, inspiration struck. Why not write about someone whose historical impact is still felt today? A “great” person who not only built an empire but also helped forge the foundation of today’s Europe… Charlemagne.


On this day, 28 January 814, in what is now Aachen, Germany, Charlemagne (Charles the Great) passed away. He was both my and my spouse’s many-times through many lines great-grandfather through at least two of his 18 known children, sons Pepin “Carloman” of Italy and Louis “The Pious” of Aquitaine.

Born on 2 April 747, in Liège (located in modern-day Belgium), Charles, named after his paternal grandfather Charles Martel (the Hammer), was the son of Pepin (the Short), king of the Franks, and Bertrada of Laon.

He joined older brother Rothaid III, born circa 740; sister Adelheid, also born circa 740; and sister Berthe, born 745. He also had a sister named Rothaide, birthdate unknown. On 28 June 751, brother Carloman was welcomed to the family. Brother Pepin came along in 756, and sister Gisela arrived the next year in 757. Of these children, only three survived to adulthood: Charles, Carloman, and Gisela (who would eventually become the abbess of Chelles Abbey).

On 24 September 768, Charles’ father died. On 9 October 768, Charles and his brother Carloman were crowned co-rulers of the Franks, each inheriting half of the kingdom while sharing control of the region that would become Aquitaine. Unfortunately, this co-rule was acrimonious, causing political instability and discord between the brothers who already suffered from severe sibling rivalry.

Circa 769, Charles was presented with his first known child, son Pepin (the Hunchback); Pepin’s mother was Himiltrude. 

In 770, Charles signed a treaty with Duke Tassilo III of Bavaria and married the daughter of the Lombard King Desiderius.

Early in 771, Charlemagne annulled his marriage to the Lombard princess and severed his alliance with her father. Soon thereafter, he married Hildegard of the Vinzgau.

On 4 December 771, Charlemagne’s brother Carloman died unexpectedly. Carloman’s wife, Gerberga, assumed that their elder son, Pepin, a toddler, would inherit his father’s kingdom and that she would serve as regent until Pepin matured. However, Charlemagne had other plans. Securing the loyalties of this brother’s former allies, Charlemagne seized control of the throne and reunited the two halves of his father’s kingdom.

The first three decades of Charlemagne’s reign were dominated by military campaigns…prompted by…the need to defend his realm against external foes and internal separatists, a desire for conquest and booty, a keen sense of opportunities offered by changing power relationships, and an urge to spread Christianity.¹

Circa 772, son Charles the Younger was born to Charlemagne and his wife Hildegard.

Charlemagne then continued his father’s policy regarding the papacy and a champion for the Catholic Church. On 6 April 774, Charlemagne confirmed a gift that his father had made to Pope Stephen II at Quiercy-sur-Loire of the territories belonging to Ravenna.

A few months later on 10 July 774, Charlemagne removed his former father-in-law from power in northern Italy and named himself king of the Lombards.

Around this time, in 774, daughter Adalhaid was welcomed to the family. Unfortunately, she died soon afterward.

However, this was not the only child born to Charlemagne in 774; he also fathered a daughter, Adaltrude, from his concubine, Gersuinda.

Daughter Rotrude came along the next year in 775.

Again, Charlemagne strayed from his marriage vows, fathering a daughter, Ruodhaid, with his concubine Madelgard. (Ruodhaid would eventually become abbess of Faremoutiers.)²

On 16 April 778, wife Hildegard delivered twin sons, Louis (the Pious) and Lothair. While Louis would survive to adulthood, Lothair died in infancy.

In an effort to defend the Iberian Peninsula from the Gauls, Charlemagne led an incursion into northern Spain and engaged their opponent on 15 August 778, in the Battle of Roncevaux Pass. The Frankish armies were defeated by Gascon forces and were forced to retreat.

Circa 780, Charlemagne and Hildegard welcomed another daughter to their family, Bertha. The next year, another daughter, Gisela, was born.

Despite this setback, Charlemagne persisted in his effort to make the frontier in Spain more secure. In 781, he created a subkingdom of Aquitaine; his son Louis was made its ruler. Using Aquitaine as a base, Frankish forces mounted a series of campaigns that eventually secured the Spanish March, the territory lying between the Pyrenees and the Ebro River.

The final known child of Charlemagne and Hildegarde was a daughter named Hildegarde, born in 782. Unfortunately, neither baby Hildegarde nor her mother lived too long after the birth.

In 784, less than two years after his second wife’s passing, Charlemagne married again, this time to Fastradam, the daughter of an East Frankish count.²

Soon, circa 784, the couple welcomed a daughter, Theodrada. (She would eventually become the abbess of Argenteuil.)²

Another daughter, Hiltrude (the last known child of Charlemagne) was born in 787.

In the years 787 and 788, Charlemagne conquered Bavaria, whose leaders had been long-opposed to his efforts to annex their region. With the acquisition of Bavaria, the Franks came into contact with the Avars, Asiatic nomads whose empire was inhabited by conquered Slavs on both sides of the Danube River. Charlemagne overpowered the Avars and captured their territories and riches, including land south of the Danube which allowed Christian missionaries, intent on conversion, easier access to the Slavic population.

Meanwhile, Charlemagne continued his campaign against the Saxons, forcing them to convert to Christianity under penalty of death. In October 782, this join-us-or-die policy resulted in the Massacre of Verden, when Charlemagne ordered the death of 4,500 Saxons who refused to give up their pagan beliefs.

While responding to the challenges involved in enacting his role as warrior king, Charlemagne was mindful of the obligation of a Frankish ruler to maintain the unity of his realm… Charlemagne’s most innovative political measures involved strengthening the linkages between his person, his palatium, and local officials.³

Because of Charlemagne’s military successes, his kingdom was ever-expanding and ever in need of defending. However, by blending military might and delicate diplomacy, Charlemagne was able to establish stable relations with former foes. “By boldly and resourcefully combining the traditional role of warrior king with aggressive diplomacy based on a good grasp of current political realities, Charlemagne elevated the Frankish kingdom to a position of leadership in the European world.”¹

In 792, Charlemagne’s son Pepin (the Hunchback), along with several Frankish nobles, revolted against his father; however, the plot was discovered before it could put it into action. Charlemagne commuted his son’s death sentence; instead, Pepin was tonsured and exiled to the monastery of Prüm.

Two years later in 794, Charlemagne’s third wife, Fastrada, died. He immediately married his fourth wife, Luitgard, the daughter of an Alamannian count.

On 1 June 794, Charlemagne opened a general synod, an ecclesiastical governing or advisory council of the Catholic Church, in Frankfurt.

On 4 June 800, Charlemagne’s wife, Luitgard, passed away, childless.³ She would be Charlemagne’s final wife, although that would not stop him from having children.

On 29 November 800, Charlemagne arrived in Rome to investigate corruption charges against Pope Leo III. On 1 December 800, a council of people for and against the pope, who had been accused of adultery and perjury, was convened. The Pope sought to remove all suspicion by swearing his innocence. Approximately, three weeks later, with the charges against him cleared, the Pope swore an oath of spiritual cleansing (purgation); his enemies were exiled. 

On 25 December 800, as a thank-you to Charlemagne for his support, Pope Leo III crowned him Emperor of the Romans during the Christmas mass at Saint Peter’s Basilica.

Throughout the decades of his rule, between the many military actions, Charlemagne had four wives, several concubines (both known and probably unknown), and 18 known children.

Charlemagne’s fourth known concubine was Regina. By her, he would have Drogo in 801, and Hugh in the year 802. (Drogo would eventually become the bishop of Metz and an abbot of Luxeuil Abbey, while Hugh would be named Archchancellor of the Empire.)²

Charlemagne’s fifth and final known concubine was Ethelind. By her, he produced two sons, Richbod in 805 and Theodoric in 807. (Richbod would become abbot of Saint-Riquier.)²

In 808, daughter Gisela passed away. Two years later on 8 July 810, son Carloman (who was rechristened Pepin a few years after his birth) also died.

Circa 811, eldest son Pepin was stricken by the plague and passed away at Prüm. Not long after on 4 December 811, son Charles suffered from a stroke and died in Bavaria.

In 813, Charlemagne summoned his only surviving son, Louis the Pious, king of Aquitaine, to his court where Charlemagne crowned Louis co-emperor before sending him back to Aquitaine.

Less than a year later, on 28 January 814, Charlemagne died from pleurisy and was laid to rest in the Aachen Cathedral.


Because he united much of Western Europe for the first time since the Roman Empire, including areas that had never been under Roman or Frankish rule, advanced Christianity throughout the continent, and launched the Carolingian Renaissance, the first of three cultural and intellectual periods in the Western world, Charlemagne has been called the Father of Europe. 

Not only do academics assert that Charlemagne is the founding father of modern-day Europe’s cultural, economic, geographic, and political roots, some, like statistician Joseph Chang and geneticist Adam Rutherford, have postulated that Charlemagne is literally a root of the family trees for most people of European ancestry. Just like the Book of Genesis with all of its begats, supposedly most individuals of European lineage can trace at least one line back to this great king.⁵ Is it because of his 18 known children, several of whom had children of their own, etc.? While this certainly is a consideration, it turns out that there is another reason why so many can claim Charlemagne as kin.

First, before I explain, let’s consider the premise behind the family tree. “When you draw your genealogy, you make two lines from yourself back to each of your parents. Then you have to draw two lines for each of them, back to your four grandparents, and then eight great-grandparents, sixteen great-great-grandparents, and so on.” ⁶ This shape is what is called a fan model.

Now, let’s go back through the generations from now to Charlemagne (between 35 and 37 generations.) According to the premise behind the fan model, each modern-day descendent theoretically has more than 68 million 36th great-grandparents. If you are thinking that there is no way that there were that many people in Europe at that time, you would be correct.⁶ Charlemagne ruled during the Early Middle Ages, (between the years 600 and 1000). During his reign, the total population of Europe, which comprised an area of about 1.6 million miles, was about 30 million, less than half the number of 36th great-grandparents of the fan model.

It turns out that the family tree is more the family web with family lines tangling and intersecting. Distant great-grandparents will often appear on multiple lines. This concept of a family web is called pedigree collapse. “Pedigree collapse occurs when there is marriage between two people who are related to each other, even distantly. Most marriages weren’t distant, however. Historically, 80 percent of marriages were between people who were first or second cousins.”⁸ 

So, when we apply this concept of pedigree collapse to Charlemagne, it is easy to see how one man, especially one whose wealth and influence and many children, could literally be a progenitor of much of today’s persons of European descent. Genealogist Mark Humphrys explains, “Here we have a sir, so this woman is the daughter of a knight. Maybe this woman will marry nobility, but there’s a limited pool of nobility, so eventually, someone here is going to marry someone who’s just wealthy. Then one of their children could marry someone who doesn’t have that much money. In ten generations you can easily get from princess to peasant.”⁹

So, the question should not be IF we are related to Charlemagne but HOW. And that is the job of genealogy: to make connections, to build backward using documentation and even DNA. Over the past quarter-century, I have been able to nake these connections through several of our families’ lines…now, just a few hundred or so more to go… Whew, this might take a while.


¹ Encyclopædia Britannica, Military Campaigns of Charlemagne

² Wikimedia Foundation, Charlemagne

³ Encyclopædia Britannica, Court and Administration of Charlemagne

⁴ Anne Leader, Italian Art Society, …Charlemagne Arrived in Rome…to Investigate Corruption Charges against Pope Leo III

⁵ Adam Rutherford, The Guardian, So You’re Related to Charlemagne? You and Every Other Living European…

⁶ Carl Zimmer, National Geographic, Charlemagne’s DNA and Our Universal Royalty

⁷ Michele Caimmi, History of Yesterday, We All Descend From Charlemagne

⁸ Mercedes, Who Are You Made Of?, How Many Ancestors Do You Have?

⁹ Stephen Olson, The Atlantic, The Royal We

¹⁰ Peter Ralph and Graham Coop, The Geography of Recent Genetic Ancestry across Europe

Categories: Famous Faces and Places, On This Day, Royal Roots, Watts-Stark Line, Williams-Stott Line | Tags: , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

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5 thoughts on “12 Ancestors in 12 Months: Foundations

  1. Pingback: Conflict in Our Family Trees | Princes, Paupers, Pilgrims & Pioneers

  2. Pingback: *Press This* 12 Ancestors in 12 Months: Foundations #219 | Its good to be crazy Sometimes

  3. Anna, I just encountered Thomas and Elizabeth (Marshall) Trowbridge in my own research, Besides Cindy Crawford, it looks like you have quite a few famous, albeit distant, kin through them, including Susan B. Anthony, President Rutherford B. Hayes, Ernest Hemingway, and Gloria Vanderbilt.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: New Year, New Challenge | Princes, Paupers, Pilgrims & Pioneers

  5. I am (as you note a huge percent of those with European roots as well) descended from Charlemagne. My one line that I can confirm going back to Charlemagne, is the same one that I share with Cindy Crawford, we both descend from Thomas Trowbridge and Elizabeth Marshall. I am sure I have others, because I have some British Royalty as my ancestor way back.

    Liked by 1 person

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